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On wisdom, gravity, timing and truth

Though popular culture values celebrity over wisdom, Skidmore’s McCormack Visiting Artist-Scholars bring the best of both worlds. Past McCormack visitors such as polymath humorist Jonathan Miller, Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour, and renowned saxophonist Joshua Redman have shared insights from their public successes and the wisdom accrued in the practice of their art.

Mark Bolles photo  
Bill T. Jones asks big questions of first-year students.  

This past fall it was famed dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, who jetéd through a brief residency, leaving behind a sizzle of performance wisdom and four of his company members to work with student dancers. Lauded worldwide for his bold and provocative choreography for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company he directs, Jones has earned honors ranging from a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant to a Tony Award. A veteran of three Skidmore summer dance residencies, he also earned an honorary Skidmore degree in 2008.

Jones began by guest-teaching in morning dance classes. After lunch, he sharply challenged the thinking of First-Year Experience seminar students. (“What is a human dilemma?” he demanded, prowling the Dance Theater stage. “Tell me! How about, Why am I born? What’s right and wrong? How do we live together and tolerate ideas that do not jibe with ours?”) That evening, he electrified
a full Gannett Auditorium with his tart, comical, and humane vision of beauty, truth, and art.

Riffing on the essence of art, Jones said, “An artist does not have to do a goddamn thing,” except “be brave, spontaneous, and delicious, and also work on timing, intent, and sensitivity.” Then he demonstrated those qualities by screening several passages from his works, including Serenade/The Proposition, created for the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. A recording of Serenade, which movingly blends history, dance, and the spoken word, was part of the summer reading assignment for all incoming Skidmore students.

The Gannett audience asked Jones questions from the profound to the hilarious. When the 57-year-old Jones lamented the toll gravity takes on a dancer, a fresh-faced Skidmore student prefaced the next question with “I’m 21, and gravity clearly favors you.” Another questioner asked, “How can you realize the essence of this truth you talk about?” Jones replied frankly, “Truth is elusive.

I just keep scratching.” When someone asked how he coped with criticism of his work, he shrugged. “The media giveth and the media taketh away. You have to take it and, if you’re strong enough, grow from it.” A student who described himself as a pianist asked, “How do you keep yourself fresh?” “Practice. Honor your gods. Hope you have some skill,” Jones replied. “But don’t worry about anything I say now. Just make your beautiful music. Is that good enough? Because that’s how I’m doing it.”

Then Jones took off for New York City, making ready his Broadway directorial debut with the new musical Fela! The production, which the New York Times called “a pulse-racing new show about the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti,” opened to much acclaim on November 23. —BM